3 MARCH 1999 - FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Photos Available

Contacts Joel Blatchford 907.563.3743
Valerie Brown/Trustees for Alaska 907.276.4244, ext. 16
Brendan Cummings/Center for Biological Diversity 510.848.5486

INUPIAT HUNTER SEEKS STRICTER LIMITS ON BELUGA HARVESTING: ENVIRONMENTAL COALITION ASKS FOR EMERGENCY LISTING OF BELUGA WHALE AS "ENDANGERED"

In a petition filed today, Joel Blatchford, an Inupiat and former whale hunter, and a coalition of conservation groups asked the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to list the Cook Inlet beluga under the Endangered Species Act.

The petition to the Secretary of Commerce was hand-delivered in Anchorage. Petitioners joining Joel Blatchford include Alaska Center for the Environment, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Alaska Wildlife Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Marine Conservation, National Audubon Society and Trustees for Alaska. It urges the National Marine Fisheries Service to work to implement emergency conservation strategies for the endangered whales.

"This is a very special whale," said Blatchford, "We need to protect its food supply and get hunting under control. What would Anchorage be without the belugas swimming near us?" Blatchford, whose father taught him to hunt and prepare belugas, stopped hunting the small whale in 1994 after noticing it was becoming increasingly rare. He has warned Alaska Natives, state agencies and federal wildlife managers for years that if reforms are not instituted, the beluga is either going to go extinct or wind up on the endangered species list.

Formerly seen throughout the northern Gulf of Alaska from Cook Inlet to Yakutat Bay, the beluga is now restricted to Cook Inlet. Even there, it has become very rare in the lower inlet and is continuing to decline in the upper inlet. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that the 1994 population of 653 whales dropped to 347 by 1998. In the 1970s it was common to see 450 or more whales in a single day.

Commercial and subsistence hunting is taking a heavy toll on the declining whale. In a 1998 report, the NMFS concluded that "the current level of human caused mortality is not sustainable." The Cook Inlet Marine Management Council estimates that a minimum of 65 whales were either killed or struck by hunters in 1995, and up to 147 were killed by hunters in 1996. Because of unregulated and unreported hunting, some subsistence, some commercial, the full yearly take is not known. According to Blatchford, "Hunters should voluntarily stop hunting now," he said, "if they don't, there may not be any whales to hunt in a few years."

"The beluga is one the world's most beautiful and unique species," said Brendan Cummings, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, "NMFS has a moral and legal responsibility to save the beluga from extinction."

If listed on an emergency basis, the Cook Inlet beluga will be given the full protection of the Endangered Species Act for six months while the Marine Fisheries Service develops a final listing decision and identifies steps needed to restore the population to a safe level.

The ESA requires that a population be listed as endangered when it faces the threat of extinction from overutilization, when existing regulatory mechanisms are inadequate, when its habitat is threatened, when it is vulnerable to disease or predation and when there are other human caused factors affecting its continued existence. Each of these factors is affecting Cook Inlet beluga whales. Petitioners are requesting critical habitat designation for Cook Inlet beluga whales in conjunction with a request for listing under the ESA. A species' critical habitat includes those areas which are essential for the health, continued survival and recovery of the population.

Petitioners also request that NMFS take immediate action to implement emergency regulations to regulate hunting to protect Cook Inlet beluga whales. Such regulation is needed until the population decline is halted and reversed, and until regulations have been developed in conjunction with the Native community to limit the subsistence harvest and promote the conservation of beluga whales. Unless immediate action is taken, the unregulated harvest of Cook Inlet beluga whales will continue throughout the 1999 hunting season, bringing the species ever closer to the brink of extinction.

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